Exclusive | “Fernando realised there was manipulative things going on when Hamilton joined McLaren”

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Fernando Alonso went to McLaren for the 2007 season following two successive Drivers’ Championship at Renault. In fact, he was officially announced to join McLaren for ’07 in December 2005. In spite of that, the Spaniard and Renault brilliantly claimed a second successive Drivers’ Championship in 2006.

Photo Credit: McLaren Racing

Speaking to Pit Debrief, Chris Hessey, his number 1 mechanic for those two championships, admitted he was sad the Spaniard left.

“We got to the airport on the Monday morning to fly back to the UK, and we found out then he had signed for McLaren.

“So basically he won the championship and signed that evening signed for Ron Dennis, and he went to McLaren.

“It was sad. It would have been nice [if he stayed].

“As I say with all these drivers, they are looking for the next step forward, and obviously money speaks a thousand words. Ron stumped up big cash for him.”

The now 42-year-old had already shown glimpses of his immense talent and speed at Minardi, as well as taking his first pole [Malaysia] and win [Hungary] at Renault in 2003. 2005 saw the real breakthrough, however.

After finishing 3rd in the season opener at the Australian Grand Prix from 13th on the grid because of mixed conditions in one-shot qualifying, Alonso went on a three-race winning streak from there, opened up a 16-point lead and never looked back.

Hessey explained to Pit Debrief how Alonso massively appreciated his car crew during those winning years at Renault, sharing a story of how the Spaniard gave them his own bonus money after winning races and finishing on the podium.

“I remember though with Fernando when he started to win, he called me into the back of the truck one afternoon and he said, ‘can you give me the name of the guys that work on my car’, and well I said ‘yeah’.

“I think back in the day there was just six main people that worked on that one car. I gave him all the names.

“Then the following race, he called me in the back of the truck again, had a big pile of envelopes and said, ‘these are for you and the guys. This is for you’. So I said, ‘oh’.

“I just thought it was a thank you card. I opened the money up and there was like 600 euros in it.

“I said, ‘what’s this for’, he said ‘this is part of my bonus that Flavio has to give me when I do well or get in the top 3, I get a bonus. I want to share it with you guys, because without you guys I wouldn’t be able to do it’. And I said, ‘no Fernando, you don’t need to do that. He said, ‘no I’m doing it’.

“I went out and gave the money to all the guys. Every few races he would do the same, come out with a pile of envelopes and say, ‘there you go, can you give these to the guys’.”

However, during his year at McLaren in 2007, the story was very different.

“But when he went to McLaren, he tried to do the same thing there for his crew and Ron Dennis stopped it. He said, ‘we’re not doing this’, and he wouldn’t let him do it.

“He did it with us. There was no animosity. He said to me, ‘my bonus money I get is more than my wages from Flavio, and he told me that when he gave me the first batch of envelopes because I said, ‘no no no, you don’t need to this’. He said, ‘you’re part of what I do, so I want to share it with you’.”

On a podcast last year, former McLaren mechanic Marc Priestley shared a story of how Alonso was doing the same at the Woking-based team — including the crew on the spare car — but the reaction was very different.

“There was a moment during 2007 where Fernando turned up at a race and when I arrived, Fernando’s manager or trainer is handing out little brown envelopes stuffed with cash to everybody who wasn’t on Lewis’ car.

“I remember opening up the envelope and there was like €1500 or something. It was so dodgy. First of all, you get an unmarked brown envelope and I’m like ‘thanks very much, what’s that?’ and the trainer wanders off and you’re left with this thing and you open it up and it’s literally just full of cash.

“All of a sudden this starts spreading around the team and the only people that didn’t get them were Lewis’ crew. It starts to dawn on us what’s happened here, he’s looking to gain support, he’s trying to encourage people to support his side of this intense battle that they were in.

“On one hand you can say it was a clever tactic but in the end, the team obviously found out about it and made us donate the whole lot to charity which was fine, but it was a little insight into the two different mindsets.”

Hessey brushed off that suggestion, stating he just wanted to do what he had done at Renault.

“I do remember the McLaren bribery, which was rubbish. He wasn’t bribing people to do a better job than the other crew, because all the mechanics would to the same job. He just wanted to share that bonus with his car crew.”

After winning the third race of his F1 career at the 2005 Bahrain Grand Prix, Alonso handed the winning trophy to Hessey, his number 1 mechanic at the time. It’s a trophy the Brit still treasures 18 years on.

“He is [a team player]. Bahrain 2005, I’ve still got the trophy now. He won the race, came up to me in the garage with the winners trophy and said, ‘this is for you’. I said, ‘okay Fernando no worries, I’ll package it up and I’ll get it shipped back in the freight for you to the UK, save you trying to get on a plane with it’.

“He said, ‘no, this is for you’. I said, ‘what do you mean for me?’. He said, ‘I want to give you this trophy, it’s yours.’ That’s the sort of guy he was.”

Fernando Alonso’s race-winning trophy from the 2005 Bahrain Grand Prix

Photo Credit: Chris Hessey

Over the years, Alonso has had plenty of accusations thrown at him in that he is not a team player, including by former Ferrari teammate Felipe Massa, who said, “it was quite difficult to work together inside the team, you know. Actually, the team was splitting in the middle”.

Once again, this was something Hessey denied after his experiences with the Spaniard at Renault.

“I think a lot of the press is just trying to make things bad for him. He was never ever aggressive with anybody. He wasn’t manipulative, even with the drivers he had beside him in the other car.

“You would hear him in the garage talking about the car, the race, qualifying. He wasn’t hiding anything.”

With Michael Schumacher retiring at the end of 2006, Kimi Räikkönen made the move from McLaren to Scuderia Ferrari.

This meant Alonso had Lewis Hamilton as his teammate for 2007. It was expected he would be the lead challenger to make it three titles in a row as the Brit was a rookie that year.

However, things quickly got tense inside the team. Although Alonso finished P2 in Australia and won in Malaysia, 22-year-old Hamilton massively impressed and won his first Grand Prix in Canada on just his sixth start.

He backed it up a week later at Indianapolis as Alonso showed his frustration for the first time on track with the team as he jinked towards the pit wall during the second stint of the race.

Photo Credit: McLaren Racing

Hamilton was signed by McLaren in 1998 for their junior programme. Hessey told Pit Debrief that he was informed by a McLaren engineer that Dennis was keen on creating his own driver.

He believes it led Dennis to give preference to the now seven-time World Champion over the two-time defending one at the time.

“The thing is with Ron Dennis, McLaren and Hamilton, he was brought in by Ron Dennis as a young driver.

“Ron Dennis said — and this was told to me by one of their engineers at the time, not Marc Priestley, another guy — he said Ron Dennis was fed up paying huge salaries to get a good driver. So he wanted to create a driver on his own.

“He paid for his education, his Junior Formula racing. He paid for it all the way to get into Formula One.

“When he came into McLaren alongside Fernando, I think that’s when Fernando realised there is manipulative things going on behind the scenes.”

It all came to a head in Hungary when Hamilton led his stablemate by two points in the Drivers’ Championship.

At the start of Q3, Alonso was supposed to be the lead car during the ‘fuel burn’ phase back then. It was the Spaniard’s turn to get preference on strategy as an extra lap of running during that period would have given him a strategy advantage on Sunday.

However, Hamilton disobeyed the instructions. According to Hessey, Dennis was in on it as well.

“The classic case was Budapest where Alonso knew he was being held up deliberately, because he [Dennis] was changing what should have happened around to help Hamilton benefit from it, to Fernando’s cost.”

The Spanish driver would take matters into his own hands. As the drivers switched to fresh tyres for their final runs at the end of Q3, Alonso delayed exiting the pit box.

While he got around to start a lap and took pole position away (he was later docked five spots for the pit box incident), Hamilton failed to make the chequered flag. Ron Dennis quickly jumped off the pit wall to find Alonso’s physio — he was furious.

“Fernando’s physio was doing the pit board and he was giving Fernando a countdown of when to go from the pit box. Fernando knew what was going on and he said, ‘I’m not having this’.

“It was all manipulative to make Hamilton be better, because Ron Dennis had paid for all his Junior Formula, and he wanted to create his own driver. That’s where the friction came from.”

McLaren’s implosion opened the door for Kimi Räikkönen to steal the championship by a single point from Hamilton and Alonso at the Brazilian Grand Prix.